Climate Visuals – Interview with Barbara Dombrowski

This interview originally appeared on Climate Visuals as part of my consulting work.


On the eve of the United Nations 23rd climate change conference (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany, Climate Visuals spoke with German photographer Barbara Dombrowski. Ms. Dombrowski will be hosting an exhibition of her photography project Tropic Ice at the Künstlerforum during the conference. Tropic Ice combines portraits from the Amazon and Greenland’s indigenous peoples to “connect the two extreme climate zones” and to raise awareness about the people affected by climate change and our connections to them.

Barbara Dombrowski - greenlandic Lady with seal coat and young Shuar with parrot
Barbara Dombrowski – greenlandic Lady with seal coat and young Shuar with parrot

The following excerpts from our conversation have been edited for clarity, language and length.


CV: What inspired you to take a different approach to climate change visual communication as demonstrated in Tropic Ice?


BD: One important thing is that I am always interested in people, this is the point where I always start. It was clear that I was making this story about climate change and people. I thought for years about how I should photograph it. For me it was clear that I didn’t want to show catastrophe. I know that it is too much for people when every day the news is filled with all these catastrophes. You are touched, but you are not that touched because it is too far from your own reality. I thought, I have to tell this story in a different way, I have to show people and their life situation. With that, hopefully I can build empathy for these people. The only thing that will bring us to action is empathy, thinking about life situations, their life situation, your life situation, or that of your children.

Barbara Dombrowski - Achuar José under the holy tree and Anda the drumdamcer from Kulusuk
Barbara Dombrowski – Achuar José under the holy tree and Anda the drumdamcer from Kulusuk

CV: Was it difficult to get Tropic Ice funded and accepted by photo editors?


BD: It was really a long stony walk. This is a personal project and I started with this idea. I’m a professional photographer and when I had made enough money I began this project. The biggest sponsor in this project is me. I had magazines that printed little side stories to help with the financing of this project. A printing company donated the canvasses so the installation component was a success. I crowdfunded. It was a mixture of many things. But, it is a stony road. I spoke to many companies and there was no big company that said ‘OK, this is a very important issue, we will help you.’

Barbara Dombrowski - Tomasine from Tinetiqilaaq and Entsaqa the Achuar Medicineman
Barbara Dombrowski – Tomasine from Tinetiqilaaq and Entsaqa the Achuar Medicineman

CV: Do you feel that your project is accessible to a wide audience or to a subsection of society that is already convinced on climate change?


BD: I think I can touch a wider audience. What I really want to do is touch people and get them to act for themselves. They have to think about their own reality and do what they think is necessary. At my exhibitions, people from very different life situations have said ‘I understood the moment I saw the pictures’. Many people have told me it is a great project and I think that they are reacting to the portraits of the people.

Barbara Dombrowski - the Achuar under the holy ceibo and the hunter in the kajak with iceberg as installation on iceberg
Barbara Dombrowski –
the Achuar under the holy ceibo and the hunter in the kajak with iceberg
as installation on iceberg

CV: In general, the iconography of climate change is pretty limited. In your opinion, what is the greatest barrier to improving this visual representation? In other words, why are people still using polar bears to illustrate climate change when the topic touches so many lives?


BD: I think it is just easy. When they think about climate change you have this icon of a polar bear and it is just easy. What I experience in my professional life is that there is always a lack of communication between the photographer and commissioner. There are so many people involved before it gets to the photographer that everything is already decided. If they would have spoken with me before, then we could have brainstormed and created better imagery.

Commissioners are not taking this step, they are not going out and involving the professional photographers. And they often just use something they find on the net and this is the worst part of it. There are so many professionals out there and they have so much creativity and no one really asks for it. It can’t just be a situation of, ‘I have this brochure, oh shit, I need a picture which shows climate change. Hmm, I don’t have any money, let’s use a polar bear.’


Interview by Robert van Waarden

Images by Barbara Dombrowski

Cover image – 6 Representives of the Achuar and the Greenlanders on an iceberg in Greenland

Climate Visuals – Interview with Larry Westler

This interview originally appeared on Climate Visuals as part of my consulting work.


A lot of the issues facing environmental and climate change photography are facing the stock imagery industry as a whole. There is a lack of education on image rights, people just want images quickly and they want to move on with their day. Which makes sense, I totally get that. But there is little value placed on the good images out there.” Larry Westler.

Larry Westler is the content director at Aurora Photos. Behind him, in the agency’s roster, are some of the world’s best visual creatives focusing on the outdoors and the environment. Aurora markets their imagery to buyers all over the world and Climate Visuals has partnered with them to bring you the Aurora Collection.

When communicators need an image to illustrate something, they often turn to stock agencies. From big players like Getty to smaller specialised collections like Aurora, these companies hold the keys to our visual language. So, what roadblocks exist within this industry that are hindering a better visual language for climate change? We asked Larry:

“A number of climate change organisations – editorial websites, NGOs or textbook publishers for example – have come to us recently and they don’t have any budget for images. Which makes it really hard.

We have these photographers, who are professional photographers, trying to make a living by shooting and it is very difficult to sell the professional images to these companies, even at a discounted non-profit rate. Some of them are just asking for donations for credit. We are put in a hard position because we want to be able to help but we can’t for the most part.

Extrapolating from that I assume that this is a big problem throughout the industry. Many clients looking for images to portray [climate change] either do not have a budget or are not valuing the visuals as much as they should. So it is harder for them to get professional images, harder for them to portray whatever issue they are working on at that moment.

This is then reflected in what kind of images are submitted to us and what kind of images are out there. We are a capitalist society and if there is no pay off for shooting an image, photographers by and large are not going to shoot it.”

Essentially the push for free imagery is creating a race to the bottom, one which favours certain clichés and a belaboured (melting ice, polar bears) subject matter. When we undervalue imagery and take from the bottom of the pile we lose a key opportunity to connect with our audience and we continue to reinforce the narrow visual language that currently dominates climate change coverage.

Go to any stock agency and type in ‘climate change’ and you will see that language on display. This is another roadblock according to Larry:

“If you go to a website and you type in climate change, you get a lot of polar bears, and perhaps those fake scientists in those fake labs. This is a curation issue. How is the stock agency accepting images, how are they presenting that sort order for their clients? And again, what is being valued? If climate change photography is a small percentage of their sales then they are not going to prioritise those clients as much as they would big ad agencies or magazines.

How do we get these images that are 10-15 years old in front of buyers where they might be relevant again? How do we organise it to enable a better search? How do we organise it so that when you type in ‘X environmental issue’ or ‘climate change’ you don’t just get thousands of the exact same result?

The way to do that is through more specific searches and radiating outwards. It is using words in combination, like ‘environment & bees’ or ‘climate change & oil’. It then becomes a matter of how do you keep refining the search engine? How do you keep refining the image selection and the value you are putting on your images and how do you educate the users of the website?”

At Aurora they have tried to alleviate this issue with their ‘Focus on the Environment’ collection. This is a curated and growing body of over 3800+ images that focuses not only on the ‘classic’ environmental imagery but also on the lesser recognised stories. It is a good example of how agencies can be proactive in educating their clients.

It remains to be seen how stock agencies will continue to engage to dismantle these roadblocks. One thing is a given: as the gatekeepers to our visual language, stock agencies play a big role in making good climate change imagery accessible and valued.


Climate Visuals – Interview with Peter Bitzer

This interview originally appeared on Climate Visuals as part of my consulting work.


On our quest to build a new visual language for climate change, Climate Visuals is partnering with top photo agencies around the world to bring you imagery that showcase our principles for good visual communication.

One of our partners is laif, a leading German photo agency for photojournalism, magazine and travel photography.

We took a few moments to speak with Peter Bitzer, the Managing Director, to get his thoughts on climate change communication and the barriers we face in improving it. Peter has been working in the photo industry since 1989 and has been the Managing Director of laif for 24 years.

The visual representation of climate change has changed a lot in those years and he feels that image users and creators are becoming more discerning.

“There is a growing interest [in the climate issue], especially in the last two to three years. Not only are media outlets using one picture to illustrate the issue, but we see a demand for more in-depth reportages of the various aspects of climate change,” says Peter.

“This includes reportages not only on the causes of climate change, but on the consequences as well. The more a reportage can visually explain new aspects of the climate issue, the more the chance it has of getting published.”

However, he still feels that most media outlets in Germany could better explore the depth that imagery and reportage can contribute to their publications, and in turn their audience.

That is why laif has partnered with Climate Visuals. The need to educate and develop a new visual language lies with both the user and the seller and Peter hopes that initiatives like the Climate Visuals laif collection can help with this education.

An extract from laif brochure
An extract from laif brochure

Laif has also put a focus on exhibitions, books and brochures (see extract of brochure above) about climate change.

Peter hopes that these projects will help inform clients about the choices available when they need to illustrate climate change. This focus has been driven by the submissions from their photographers and from the industry demand.

Peter understands this as a common sense business decision as the world comes to recognize the challenge of climate change.

However, Peter is convinced that the key to more diverse visuals on climate has to come from public demand:  “If the interest in climate change is strong enough to put all the aspects of climate change on the table, there will also be interest in the media to use new, more compelling imagery.”

Banner image credit: Ulutuncok/laif – Afforestation in Ethiopia

Stories from the End of the Line

What does it mean to live at the end of the largest proposed tar sands pipeline in North America?

I recently spent some time trying to answer this question. I visited Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada and spoke with several people about the proposed Energy East pipeline. I heard from residents, First Nations, and fishermen that would be impacted by this mega project.

With the cancellation of the deep sea port connection in Cacouna, Quebec, many are starting to ask one simple question. If threats to the St. Lawrence, organized citizen action, and an endangered Beluga whale can stop a deep sea terminal, why can’t the same happen in the Bay of Fundy? Tens of thousands of jobs in tourism and fisheries are supported by the Bay and it is home to the critically endangered Right Whale. The people of Saint John have been in the shadow of fossil fuel development for decades with little to show economically. Is enough enough?

The following are three stories from three different individuals in New Brunswick.


Published in the Guardian – Along The Pipeline

This weekend the Guardian newspaper in the UK published the Along the Pipeline project. I am very excited to see this major international publication pick up this body of work and share it with a wide audience. It will drive much needed attention towards the massive Energy East pipeline proposal. Check It Out.

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 8.06.12 PM

In Pictures – Over 25,000 march in Quebec City for Climate Action


On Saturday, April 4, 2015, over 25,000 citizens marched in Quebec City calling on Canadian Premiers and the Federal Government to Act on Climate. I was contracted by Greenpeace to cover this huge moment. Those images have been shared and used widely on the net the last few days, including over 15,000 times here on ThinkProgress. I believe that this march is a sign that the climate movement has hit a tipping point.


20150411_quebecmarch_051 20150411_rvw_quebecmarch_031 20150411_rvw_quebecmarch_083 20150411_rvw_quebecmarch_10020150411_quebecmarch_113

2700 Visit Along the Pipeline Exhibit in One Night

Over 2700 people visited the opening night of the Along the Pipeline exhibit in Montreal on Saturday, Feb. 28. The opening coincided with Montreal’s Nuit Blanche. I am blown away by the amount of people that came to see this photography project focusing on the Energy East pipeline proposal. Packed from 8pm to 2am, visitors examined the photos, read the stories, and sampled the oil inspired cocktails. What an evening!

The exhibit runs until March 17, 2015 at the Maison du Développement Durable, 50 Sainte Catherine O, Montreal. Don’t miss it.

Credit: David Champagne

Exhibition Opening – Along the Pipeline at Nuit Blanche

TBob Smokerhis Saturday, Feb. 28, the Maison du Développement Durable in Montreal will play host to the Along the Pipeline photography exhibition. Presented within the confines of the Nuit Blanche, this promises to be an exciting evening with cocktails, pipelines and lots of people. If you are in Montreal and free, please stop by. Afterwards you can continue on to one of the many numerous events happening all across the city.

Can’t make the opening on Saturday? Don’t worry, the exhibit will be displayed until March 17, 2015.

Where: Maison du Developpement Durable
When: Saturday, Feb 28 – March 17
Time: Opening at 20:00 on Saturday, Feb. 28

Published: Afterimage, the Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism

This month’s edition of AfterImage features an interview on my work and recent project, Along the Pipeline. The article is titled – From Climate Crisis to Climate Movement: A Conversation with Robert van Waarden

I was interviewed by art critic and writer Marc Léger last year in Montreal. Marc and I discussed the growing climate movement, the need for visual media within that movement and my own visual inspiration. I am very happy to be featured in this prestigious magazine.


Exploring the anti-wind movement in the UK

Ruth Chapman (l) talks with the owner of the Tafarn Dwynant in north west Wales. (Robert van Waarden)

Ruth Chapman (R) talks with the owner of the Tafarn Dwynant in north west Wales.

Pint in hand, I make my way to the corner table bathed in sunshine at the Tafarn Dwynant. Ruth Chapman joins me. Her glass contains orange juice and her baby bump shows clearly. This is the hangout for employees and students at CAT, the Center for Alternative Technology, near Machynlleth, Wales.

Ruth studied Environmental Management at university and moved to Machynlleth, or ‘Mac’, to work in the wind energy department at renewable energy company Dulas. While working at Dulas she decided to enrol in the Master’s program at CAT and the subject of her thesis has brought us together today. One day, while attending a debate on TAN 8, the Welsh proposal for renewable energy, Ruth was surprised to find the room packed to the rafters. Emotions were running high and most of the crowd was anti-wind. Ruth had discovered her thesis subject.

A wind turbine in the Welsh hills, United Kingdom. (Robert van Waarden)

A wind turbine in the Welsh hills, United Kingdom.

“I looked around the room and thought if you’re an outsider, if you were in the media, then you might think they are all NIMBYs, they are all just opposed to it because they all don’t want it in their backyard. But, some people were making really valid points,” she says. “So why is it that I’ve come to see onshore wind energy as a symbol of a greener future, but they see it as something that is quite destructive to the local environment?”

Her thesis was born. It is easy to list the reasons often cited by people against wind energy; visual, noise, flickr, and supposed health impacts. But Ruth was interested in ‘why’ people are opposed. She selected a small sample group of anti-wind people and was surprised to find that most of them were people that she could have a pint with.

“I had assumptions and stereotypes about the type of people I was going to be talking to. But I have to say that most of them really disproved those assumptions and challenged me. I really enjoyed this, it is a healthy thing to do, but it sort of conflicted me.” What Ruth documented couldn’t really be called NIMBYism. The term itself, not in my backyard, implies that a person would be willing to have a wind turbine built somewhere else. But Ruth was surprised by the attitude of zero tolerance for wind turbines anywhere in the UK consistently expressed by her sample group.

Ruth Chapman (Robert van Waarden)

Ruth Chapman (Robert van Waarden

Ruth’s conclusions are varied. Several factors such as fairness, improper consultation, market mechanisms and government policies all play a role in creating anti-wind sentiment.

One individual was upset by the ‘check box’ consultation carried out by the developers and didn’t feel that their concerns were addressed. Another objected to the map produced by the developers that didn’t accurately represent the landscape. They didn’t feel that they could they trust the developers if they didn’t make the right map. Furthermore, the gulf between a slick, city presentation from the developers and a local Welsh town often put things on the wrong foot. Ruth’s other theory is that the historical relationship between England and Wales might also play a role. She thinks that the Welsh felt like they were just providing the resources once again for the English.

Sheep in a pasture in Wales. In the background is the Ceemase wind farm. (Robert van Waarden)

Sheep in a pasture in Wales. In the background is the Ceemase wind farm.

Ruth didn’t come up with any solutions and that frustrates her. She does think it is necessary to do a better job telling the story of the future of energy and climate change in the UK. Ruth thinks that more people would get behind wind energy if this were done. Ruth wants to do more with this research but right now her first baby is taking priority. She loves her job working for Dulas and she hopes to keep working in this industry for the foreseeable future.

On the way back to England the next day I pass the Ceemase wind farm. The rolling Welsh landscape makes it difficult to see and it is probably the most well hidden wind farm I have seen. But the fact remains; navigating the waters of the anti-wind crowd will continue to be a challenge for developers in the years to come.

A typical anti-turbine farm in mid Wales. Translation: No Pylons.No Wind farms in Montgomeryshire (Robert van Waarden)

A typical anti-turbine farm in mid Wales. Translation: No Pylons.No Wind farms in Montgomeryshire